“We’ve had families with teenagers, elementary school kids and babies in backpacks!” exclaimed Barb Cooper, tour guide for Cincinnati Food Tours. She assured me that my teen would enjoy the tour, labeled as “the best way to experience Findlay Market.”
On a recent autumn afternoon, my son Johnny and I had that experience. I’d made reservations a week before online at findlaymarket.org/market-tours. The first date we’d picked had been filled, showing the importance of booking ahead. Vendors change with every tour, but once they’ve committed, they’re listed on the market’s Facebook page. Our tour took in dishes from Fresh Table, Gramma Debbie’s Kitchen (pictured top), Churchill’s Tea, Mimi’s Gourmet Egg Rolls and Mama Made It!
Parking was easier than I’d expected. With downtown’s sometime limited parking, and its many one-way streets, I’d worried. However, we easily found a spot in one of the three market lots, which are free for the first hour on weekdays, and just $3 for three hours on Saturday.
A few minutes before 3 p.m., we met Barb Cooper and the other tour members at the entrance of Daisy Mae’s, a shop selling fresh produce and owned by our guide and her husband. We donned lanyards as she secured her colorful sunhat, covered in flowers and fruit. She had to project her voice to be heard over the bands entertaining the crowds, but easily managed introductions, discovering that our group consisted of some visitors from Columbus and Kentucky, but mostly people who hailed from the Queen City, all of whom wanted to know more about Findlay Market.
According to Barb, people’s curiosity started the tours. “Customers would stop by and pick up some fruit and vegetables, and then ask, ‘Where can I get a sandwich?’ or ‘Where do you find the best soups?’”
We were about to find out.
“Follow my hat.” Barb pointed to the plastic bananas that covered it. “We’ll be like a conga line through the market.” We followed, Johnny just ahead of me, amid crowds of shoppers, lively music and the delicious smells of savory grilling and sweet baking.
We stopped first at Fresh Table, a stand where chefs create salads, soups, appetizers and entrees for their catering business, and for their customers at Findlay Market. Chef Meredith introduced herself, pointed to the containers filled with bright yellow roasted corn salad, and invited us to eat.
I admit I was nervous. Would Johnny like it? Would he eat it? I knew he wouldn’t make a scene: spit it out, object loudly or cry, but I wanted him to be happy and the chef to be pleased. My tension ratcheted as one member of our group asked, “What gives it that kick?”
“Cayenne,” the chef answered. “Not too much, I hope.”
Johnny dipped his fork in. He raised it to his lips. He tasted it, and he liked it. “This is good!”
Johnny and I savored our samples as Chef Meredith described more about her business. “We have a seasonal menu, driven by what we find in the market. We only make roasted corn salad when we like the corn.” In the fall, Fresh Table features dishes using more root vegetables, switches from salads to soups, and serves more comfort foods. “We make a killer macaroni and cheese, and a terrific bison chili.”
Johnny and I exchanged smiles. Killer macaroni and cheese? We’d be back.
And that’s what the tour’s about: making customers out of visitors. Sprinkled in with the history of Findlay Market, in continuous operation since 1855, Barb encouraged us to return to shop. “All of these merchants like food, many love to cook, and they’re happy to talk with you about cooking tips, or how to combine certain foods, or answer any questions.” We nodded and took note, as we bit into our crunchy eggrolls, licked some Velvet Smoke BBQ sauce from our fingers, and did our best to find room for one more handful of delicious kettle popcorn.
1801 Race Street | findlaymarket.org | open year-round
Tue – Fri 9 a.m. – 6 p.m., Sat 8 a.m. – 6 p.m., Sun 10 a.m. – 4 p.m.